The bassoon solo in Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso is an opportunity to really sing.  But it’s worth a deeper look – some inconsistencies between the score, the orchestral parts and the original piano version can suggest a fresh approach to interpretation. Nicolas Richard digs deep into one of our key orchestral excerpts.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned during my orchestral excerpt studies was that every musical decision should be informed by a deep study of the score. Passages of music that we play on the bassoon are never written in a vacuum – knowledge of the full orchestral context will always point us closer to a composer’s intentions. Countless were the times when I arrived at a lesson having practiced an orchestral excerpt until the cows come home, only to be stumped when my teacher asked, “do you know what the cellos and basses are playing under you?” Back to the drawing board I went…

One particularly interesting case in score study is the expressive solo for the bassoon in Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso. This short and exciting piece is an orchestration Ravel made of a movement from his masterful piano work, Miroirs. Roughly translated to ‘Morning Song of the Jester’, this movement frames a slow and evocative solo – the jesters’s lament – around a lively and rhythmic ‘party’, all steeped in Spanish flavour. The most interesting feature is that there is no accompaniment at all while the bassoon is playing its solo. The strings, harps, and percussion only make short punctuations between each phrase of the passage, as if the jester is strumming softly on a guitar.

Given the bare quality of the jester’s lament, and the fact that it was originally conceived as a solo piano work, it makes sense for the bassoonist to study the original Miroirs score. Ravel was himself a virtuoso pianist so some of his music has deep roots in the character of the piano itself.  A careful comparison of the notation differences between the solo piano and orchestral versions can help the bassoonist build a deeper interpretation.

The solo part looks like this….

Ravel’s original conception of Alborada as a piano solo…

The point of this comparison is to experience how different your interpretation of the solo will feel and sound at the keyboard. If you can play Alborada on the bassoon you will certainly be able to play the very simple lament on the piano.  Just do it!!

A particularly effective strategy to open up our ears to interpretive possibilities in Alborada is to practice the solo on the piano. Personally, I am possibly the worst piano player to have been awarded a music degree, but even I am able to plunk out the notes on a piano!  Experiencing this passage at the piano should at the very least ‘flavour’ your interpretation of the solo.  Thinking about a composer’s own performing perspective can lead us to hear familiar phrases in a new light. I adore listening to a great pianist play this piece and dream about bringing that kind of artistry to my own playing.

For many wind players the percussive nature of the piano sometimes seems a weakness in a lyrical passage. Even on a concert grand piano, once a note is struck it must die away. Isn’t the bassoon closer to the human voice?  Perhaps, but part of the magic in great pianism is to capitalize on this lack of sustaining tone, creating the illusion of linearity despite the constant waning flexibility of each note.  A particular strength of the piano that is most instructive to the bassoonist studying Alborada lies in its ability to emulate the decay of syncopation without any effort.  It’s unavoidable, but an attribute, and here we make the decay coincide with the rhythmic energy in the tail end of a syncopation. Look at the bassoon entries in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th iterations begin with a syncopation.  Perhaps we could try to emulate that?

Ultimately, it’s my personal view that we bassoonists should approach the solo in a manner that leans into the idiosyncratic strengths of our instrument. We like to think that the ‘Master of Orchestration’ knew what he was doing by giving this beautiful piano passage to the bassoon! Still, there is much to learn by sitting at a keyboard and trying to emulate a great pianist.

Here is a fine example – a performance by the legendary Dinu Lipatti. (Yes, it’s surprisingly quick!)

Below you will find a summary of the differences, bar-by-bar, between the passage in the piano score “PS” and the orchestral score “OS”. Here, “M. N” denotes the Nth bar starting from the first bar of the solo at the plus lent marking (i.e. M. 1 is the first bar of the solo, and so forth). You will find the bassoon excerpt with differences from the piano score marked in highlighter. The passage from the bassoon part does not deviate from what is found in the orchestral score.

My hope is that pointing out the differences between source materials and executing them yourself – at the piano!! – will engender some soul searching questions!


-Should we attempt to match the natural decay of the piano when we play long notes in this passage?

-To what extent does the original conception of the solo on the piano influence the new version that Ravel created by orchestrating the piece?

-Why would Ravel choose to alter the grace notes of the piano version to strict rhythms in the orchestration? How does that influence our interpretation?

-Why might it be relevant that Ravel marked certain grace notes to start with the left hand rather than keeping all notes in the right hand?

-Why are some crescendos/diminuendos placed on different or missing altogether between the two versions?


Measure 1 –
Piano Score: « expressif » « en récit »
Orchestral Score: « expressif » « quasi recitativo »

Measure 2 –
PS: No crescendo printed, no accent on grace note
OS: crescendo starting on 2nd eighth note of b.2, accent on grace note

Measure 3 –
No differences

Measure 4 –
No differences, but interesting marking of playing first note of grace notes with the LH in PS

Measure 5 –
PS: Nothing in this bar, but previous bar’s last beat has sustain slur under it. This is made more explicit in OS and the bassoon part.
OS: B ties

Measure 9 –
PS: No crescendo, marking of “enlever la sourdine”
OS: crescendo starting on B to next bar

Measure 10 –
No difference, again indication of first note of grace notes with LH in PS

Measure 11 –
PS: Very different from OS! Second half of second beat: Eighth note and grace note (without accent)
OS: Second half of second beat: two sixteenths notes, the second having an accent

Measure 12 –
PS: See M. 5
OS: See M. 5

Measure 15 –
PS: No crescendo
OS: Crescendo starting on the G

Measure 16 –
PS: No diminuendo, accent+LH marking on grace note
OS: Diminuendo starting on A

Measure 17 – PS: No diminuendo
OS: Diminuendo through the entire bar

Measure 18 – 
PS: LH grace note marking (no accent). Diminuendo starts on this bar
OS: Continuation of long diminuendo. Note the lack of accent on the grace notes

Measure 19 –
PS: See M. 5
OS: See

Measure 21 –
PS: Crescendo begins on F#
OS: Crescendo begins on E

Measure 22 –
PS: Very different from OS. First half of b.1 is one eighth note followed by a grace note without an accent. The 2nd eighth note of b.1 has an accent. No accent on the E in b.2
OS: First half of first beat is two 16ths, the second having an accent. The E in b.2 has an accent.

Measure 23 –
PS: No tenuto marks, diminuendo starts on 2nd triplet of b.2
OS: Two eighth notes of b.1 have tenuto marks. No diminuendo

Measure 24 –
PS: Diminuendo marking throughout, no “pressez” marking
OS: “poco dim” and “pressez” marked

Measure 25 –
PS: No “rall” marking. No crescendo.
OS: “rall” marked. Crescendo on last three eighth notes.

Measure 26 –
PS: Diminuendo starts after grace notes. Slur begins on the bar, not slurred from previous bar. No slur indicating sustain of C# like in analogous passages.
OS: No diminuendo. Slur covers M. 25-27.

Measure 27 –
PS: Not a part of the passage
OS: Eighth note tied over. See M. 5

Happy head scratching!

Nicolas Richard is a member of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and a graduate of the University of Ottawa and Rice University.  He is a member of the board of the Council of Canadian Bassoonists

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Cracking The Nutcracker

Cracking The Nutcracker

Cracking the Nutcracker

The Holiday Excerpts Missing From Your Audition Book – by Darren Hicks

It’s that time of year again: Nutcracker and Messiah season! The holiday season is one of the busiest for many musicians and orchestral players are not immune. These perennial pieces are beloved by audiences and are big ticket items for symphonies around the world and yet are rarely if ever included on audition lists. The Nutcracker in particular offers multiple opportunities for the bassoon to shine that are overlooked in favour of perhaps more standard symphonic excerpts as bassoonists study their craft. The National Arts Centre Orchestra just finished their run of The Nutcracker and (shockingly) it was the first time I have ever played it. Somehow I managed to avoid it throughout my life as a bassoonist and I certainly could have saved preparation time had I studied the following excerpts as part of my audition booklet. You’ll notice there are a couple of excerpts not included below, namely the dance movements that make up the suite frequently played on Holiday Pops shows. Of course the tuning of the final octaves at the end of “Le Café” are tricky and the endurance needed to get through the unending tongued eighth notes in “Le Thé” can be challenging, but let’s explore five other candidates that deserve a space in your audition book. We’ll start with the technical fingering passages:

Nutcracker is a huge learning curve and there are a lot of notes.  Start by looking at the whole Bassoon1 part.  It is available here:

Tchaikovsky Op 71 Bassoon

In the following excerpts, I’ll refer to the page number for each excerpt so you’ll be able to locate the passages in context.


This passage [on page 4] comes toward the end of the movement directly after the Overture, played by the back row of winds (clarinets and bassoons). If you are practicing your scales intervallically in fourths and fifths this will be easier to get under your fingers so start adding those scale figurations to your practice sessions. The staccato articulation needs to be the same for all notes across this range so careful attention and slow practice keeping the shortness consistent will be of great benefit in a range where clean articulation can be challenging on the bassoon. Take special note of the half hole size needed to play G# in particular. Keeping a steady pulse is also incredibly important as any rushing or dragging will be readily apparent to audience members, especially when the duples start. (NB: there is a mistake in the part above 7 measures before rehearsal 17. This bar should be identical to the bar two measures later.)

Part of this excerpt (6 bars after 68 on page 14/15) is the motif representing the rodent army and their ruler supreme and is heard a number of times throughout the ballet. This is the first iteration and is written for the solo bassoon, so it should be played with solo dynamics in mind. The tempo for this is relatively quick and the 16ths can offer finger-twisting opportunities, so slow practice will help to avoid an unsteady pulse. The scale pattern in the second half of 4 before 69 and three before 69 is potentially slightly easier to finger than the first halves of those bars, so make sure to not rush the more familiar pattern. The measures three bars after 70 is possibly the most difficult fingering passage in the entire ballet and is rarely heard in context, but it is still essential to master the difficult finger combinations. Again, keeping a steady tempo is crucial here as any deviation from the pulse will be immediately noticeable to listeners. The opening two lines of articulated eighth notes offer another opportunity for clear and precise articulation, so make sure to practice your flicking and venting. Particularly nasty is the C#-Bb, so stretch those left thumbs out!

6/8 excerpt

Mother Ginger [Act 2 Number 8, page 24] is a fan favourite of audience members but maybe less of a favourite in the bassoon section. The tempo in this movement is always a little faster than is comfortable so best of luck! This excerpt is in a tough key and range fingering-wise to do all of these noodles around D-E-F#-G#. I use a trill fingering for the figures E-F#-E-D, fingering E (1 X 3 | 1 2 3 +low Eb resonance key) and lifting RH 2 and 3 to get the F#. That’s slightly easier for me than full fingerings, but if you can get the full fingerings under your fingers at the quick tempo, more power to you!

Here is what I used … first the tenor E, then lifting right hand 2 and 3 for F#…

Let’s now shift the focus to excerpts that are challenging in other ways.

High A trill

While still technically demanding (choose your own adventure tenor clef trill fingerings!), this excerpt [Act 2 Number 8, page 24] must be appropriately paced both dynamically and expressively. Make sure to find the line and shape of the music first before adding in the septuplets. This will ensure that the septuplets remain in context and don’t stick out in an unmusical way. Depending on the tempo of this section, full fingerings may be possible for those of you with the sharp shooter/fastest fingers in the west, but finding the best trill fingerings for the septuplets (especially the A-B trill) is highly recommended. Below is the fingering I used.  Make sure to find a fingering that is as in tune as possible. Another tip for this excerpt is to take the dynamics with a grain of salt: in the pit you will need to play a fairly soloistic piano.  

The quintuplet A to B can be done using the first of the two fingerings here, with a suggested resolution the high G of the ‘Bolero’ fingering.  Left is alternate high A, centre is the trill fingering for high B [lifting two ring fingers], right is the resolution fingering [allowing the right hand pinky to stay on the Ab key!]

Here is a great example of why we practice intervals in our daily skills along with scales. This passage [Act 2, Number 98, page 50] comes at the very end of the ballet in octaves with the second bassoon. You’ll want to work to really smooth out these intervals, especially as these notes all have different resistances and pitch tendencies and this passage is very exposed. Working with a drone can be beneficial for this excerpt and having open ears to the second bassoon lower octave is crucial in context.


If you have been looking for a real-world example of the importance of long tones, may I present to you this excerpt. [Act 1, Number 65, page 50] The difficulty of these held tones should not be overlooked as this passage is very exposed. The extreme soft dynamic range, intonation of the tritone and major third with the second bassoon, tapering, lack of helpful resistance in the E and F when dampening with the embouchure… without dedicated long tone practice these three lines will be much more difficult than they need to be. Make sure to make a breathing plan that gives you enough air at the end of the 5 bar long E natural (and know that there could be a fermata added to the bar before 65!). Feel free to make use of muffling/mute fingerings but make sure you are judicious about when the additional keys and shading of tone holes are added as the tone colour and intonation will change drastically.

Here are a few more excerpts that you should consider adding to your excerpt booklets. Honourable Mention No 1…

This selection [Act 1, Number 33, page 8] sees the two bassoons and bass clarinet play this line in unison. Make sure to not push the dynamic as an individual: this is a group fortissimo. The difference between the staccato and accented articulations should be very distinct and clear to the listener. On the longer note values marked with an accent, some decay is recommended. Dynamically-speaking, having a few levels to this excerpt allows for a more interesting performance. Often the second half of the fourth bar of this passage starts at a reduced dynamic, which allows you to grow sequentially toward the finishing sforzando.

Honourable Mention 2: Act 2, Scene 15: Valse Finale

  1. eight measures before rehearsal 88 to 14 measures after 89
  2. Rehearsal 97 for 17 measures 

These two excerpts are finger twisters. They both come from the final waltz, a quick waltz that covers four pages in the Bassoon 1 part.

The first excerpt [Act 2, Number 87, page 46] offers some challenges in coordinating less familiar finger patterns and crossbeat articulations in the eighth notes. Taking the time to practice slowly and really ingrain the muscle memory of how the fingers move between notes and where the tongue articulates will make performing this a breeze. The melody that follows the eighth notes is one of the most joyful to play in the piece, but you will have difficulty finding a good place to grab a nice breath. Cutting some of the notes that are tied over the barline a little short will give you a full beat to refill your lungs.

Valse 1st excerpt
Valse 2nd excerpt

The second excerpt [page 49] doesn’t appear difficult on the page, but at the tempo of the waltz it can really tie up your fingers. With this combination of notes the third finger on each hand plays a big role and it is often the case that these fingers are the weakest. A running theme in this post is slow practice and that theme continues here. I found memorizing this passage was the most useful because my eyes couldn’t read fast enough at tempo for my fingers to then keep up. Playing this from memory allowed me to free up some brain space to really focus on how my fingers had to move from note to note. Intonation is also important here as this is the melodic idea in octaves with a number of sections in the orchestra. Eb-F-G are notes that often need a little extra love in the tone and intonation department so make sure to extend that extra love to them.

With the selections above you can see how much is contained within The Nutcracker and why its absence from excerpt booklets is confounding. When you are listening to or watching The Nutcracker this holiday season, keep your ears open for the excerpts above to see if they can find a place in your excerpt rotation in the years to come. Happy practicing! 

Darren Hicks is the Principal Bassoon for Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and bassoon instructor at the University of Ottawa.

Rhythmic Displacement in the Study of Orchestral Excerpts

Rhythmic Displacement in the Study of Orchestral Excerpts

Talent Drills and Rhythmic Displacement (with a bonus transposition!)

Dedicated orchestrally-trained bassoonists spend thousands of hours refining and drilling orchestral passages for auditions and concerts. As Christopher Millard demonstrated on the first episode of Let’s Talk Bassoon, transposition is a wonderful way to explore the bassoon and all its tendencies by moving away from the original key. This has the effect of giving us new perspectives, new challenges and often make the original key seem so much more accessible once you return. It is more about exercising the mind which in turn, frees the power of the body to play the passage in the best way possible.

Likewise, you can use the concept of rhythmic displacement and different articulations to expose well-worn spots and tendencies for unevenness.  In each rhythmic permutation, eighth notes, triplets, sixteenths etc, we successively move the passage over by one unit. While this is initially disorienting, over time and with practice, we build flexibility, strength, and confidence. It is particularly valuable to move the strong beats to a weaker point in the bar and see if you can maintain evenness and musical direction. Add different articulations to enhance the challenge (see Figaro below). And in low register excerpts, leave the whisper key off to encourage steady and connected air supply.

Use your metronome, start slow, stay steady and over time, build each increment to concert tempo.

Take a look at the Talent Drills and give it a whirl!

For pdfs (best image quality) click on links:

Talent Drill Ravel Piano Concerto

Talent drills for Marriage of Figaro

Talent Drills for Beethoven Symphony no. 4